Efforts to improve Nebraska’s soil may reduce the risks of climate change too
By: Jenna McCoy
Del Ficke has been called the “Walt Whitman of soils.”
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I like Walt Whitman,” he says. “So, what the hell?”
Ficke does tend to wax poetically about the quality of the soil on the 480 acres of family-owned land near Pleasant Dale, Nebraska. He raises Graze Master Cattle designed for foraging on 240 acres of permanent pasture. On the other half, he grows corn and soybeans. Ficke doesn’t till the soil, and he plants cover crops and perennials like alfalfa in his fields after the harvest.
Ficke is a proponent of what’s known as regenerative agriculture, a small but increasingly popular method of farmers that puts a premium on soil health. Teeming with nutrients and microorganisms, healthy soil requires less chemical fertilizer and is better able to withstand heavy rainfall and extended drought. Outside of running his farm, Ficke also works to convince others to adopt similar practices for Indigo Agriculture, a Boston-based company that promotes regenerative agriculture.
How many farmers Ficke can convince to follow his methods may have consequences beyond Nebraska’s soil health. Some scientists see no-till farming, cover crops, and the use of livestock to provide fertilizer as potentially powerful tools in the fight against climate change.
Though the science isn’t settled, some studies suggest managing for soil health could turn farms into carbon sinks, pulling heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Already, some programs pay farmers to implement regenerative ag practices, efforts that could serve as test cases if the U.S. adopts a broad climate reduction strategy.
Climate change represents real risks to farm livelihoods. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report developed by 13 federal agencies and released in 2018, climate change will lead to more intense rainstorms, accelerating the depletion of soil that Nebraska depends on to drive its economy.
Temperatures could increase 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, depending on how well the world controls greenhouse gasses. That could cut yields in some parts of the state by 50% between 2080 and 2099.
“The degree of change that is projected will overcome our innovative ability,” said Jerry Hatfield, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant physiologist that studied water and nitrogen interactions in farming.
Nebraska is one of the few states without a climate action plan, but it has moved to protect soil health, an effort that climate advocates hope will have knock-off effects to reduce greenhouse gases. The state Legislature created the Healthy Soils Task Force in 2019 to examine ways to prolong the productivity of Nebraska’s land. The task force, which is made up of farmers and agricultural scientists, is studying practices including no-till and cover crops.
“We do know that cover crops and no-till capture carbon,” says Aaron Hird, task force advisor and state soil health specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. “If we can pull carbon out of the atmosphere and use it for productivity, that’s a benefit not only to the farmer but to the environment.”
Hatfield says cover crops on one acre of farmland could pull in as much as 2,000 pounds of carbon into the soil yearly, as much carbon as is sequestered by 4.3 acres of forest.
Agriculture accounted for 10% of United States greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Most of farming’s contribution comes in the form of nitrogen oxide, which has far more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide but dissipates in the atmosphere much more quickly. A three-year study from Purdue University in 2011 found that not tilling the soil can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide by 40-70%, depending on crop rotation.
But the climate-saving potential of regenerative agriculture is an ongoing debate. Some scientists believe the potential of no-till alone for climate change mitigation is limited. As most farmers till their no-till fields periodically, the little carbon stored in the soil is lost.
Researchers from the World Resources Institute, an organization focused on sustaining the world’s natural resources, questioned regenerative agriculture’s potential for large-scale emission reductions.
“There’s limited scientific understanding of what keeps soil carbon sequestered, and, as a result, uncertainty about whether regenerative practices actually sequester additional carbon,” according to the group.
A team of scientists disputed WRI’s key points, saying regenerative agriculture practices increase soil carbon, discourage the conversion of forests to cropland and reduce use of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
Although that debate is unsettled, scientists say there are plenty of reasons for farmers to embrace regenerative agriculture beyond climate change mitigation. Regenerative agriculture builds up organic carbon matter in the soil. It can improve nutrient value of crops and increase a field’s ability to retain water while minimizing the soil loss due to erosion.
“We tend to think about the carbon sequestration piece and what that means, but in reality, carbon is one part of the overall production system that gives us a lot of resilience,” Hatfield said.
Scientists from Iowa State University found that planting an additional crop besides corn and soybeans can eliminate 96% of chemical herbicide applications and 86% of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.
So, how does Nebraska stack up on regenerative agriculture practices?
For regenerative agriculture to be an effective mitigation and adaptation tool against climate change, Nebraska farmers likely would need to embrace many of the components of regenerative agriculture, according to UNL agronomist Andrea Basche, Ph.D., who advocates for a more holistic approach to farming.
“There’s a perception that because we do a good job with having less tillage, we’ve solved all our problems,” Basche said. “Cover crops are great, but they’re not going to be a silver bullet either.”
Proponents argue that a farm’s profitability can go up as regenerative practices lower input costs. But up-front costs and social challenges both play a part in limiting farmers’ embrace of the techniques, farmers say.
“They don’t see adding additional crops into the rotation as being economically viable,” said Keith Berns, farmer and chairperson of Nebraska’s Healthy Soils Task Force. “And until they are, they’re not going to do it.”
Berns farms 2,500 acres with his brother near Bladen, Nebraska. They haven’t tilled the land for more than 12 years. The brothers also co-own Green Cover Seed, a cover crop seed business that seeks to educate the community about cover crops and no-till farming.
“I don’t know that we lost money at first,” Berns said. “But I don’t know that we really started seeing a lot of the benefits for four or five years.”
The drop in commodity prices this year due to COVID-19 added to the financial woes facing the agricultural economy nationwide, which could slow a broad switch to regenerative agriculture.
“The average farmer in the US has gone red seven years in a row,” says Graham Christensen, who promotes regenerative agriculture through his consultancy GC Resolve. “So, I know there’s not money out there to take any chances.”
But interest is growing in regenerative agriculture, in particular its ties to efforts to pay farmers to reduce carbon emissions.
Boone McAfee, director of research for the Nebraska Corn Board, a state agency focused on corn market development and research, says farmers are asking more frequently about carbon sequestration programs. He says the Corn Board partnered with the Nature Conservancy to understand how carbon markets work and to address concerns about how farm data is valued.
Companies including Nori and Indigo Ag have developed programs that pay farmers for increasing the carbon in their soil, and Ecosystem Service Market Consortium is running a pilot program in Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy, Cargill, McDonalds and Target announced an $8.5 million project aiming to increase soil health practices to make their beef supply chains more sustainable.
Some funding is available through USDA programs to help pay for conservation activities, such as adding cover crops and converting to no-till.
“If we do it right, which is incentivize farmers to innovate, we build wealth at our farms, and we save the world,” said Matt Russell, an Iowa farmer and director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light.
Through his group, Russell gathers small groups of farmers together at churches to discuss climate change and agricultural solutions. He said farmers understand there’s room for improvement but are reluctant to take the leap.
“And, so, then the question became, Well, why?” Russell said. “What’s preventing you from doing that?”
Beyond upfront costs, Ficke said that an additional hurdle is the social ostracism that can come from taking a different path.
“People are very concerned about the perception of their neighbors, even if they don’t communicate with their neighbors a lot,” Ficke, the healthy soils evangelist, said.
His neighbors didn’t ask questions about what he’s doing on his farm, “but they were definitely watching us,” he said.
But lately Ficke says he has noticed more neighbors embracing at least one regenerative farm practice.
Research at UNL and other places that show regenerative farm practices can lead to financial reward may be encouraging more farmers to switch. Paul Jasa, UNL agricultural engineer, has seen no-till agriculture work for nearly 40 years at the 300-acre Rogers Memorial Farm, which doesn’t use irrigation and sits 10 miles east of Lincoln. Research on the farm has showed that the long-term no-till plots usually have the highest yields and are the most profitable.
“As soil health improves, so does the plant health and so does the nutritional value of the food you’re raising,” he said.
That’s important because even in an agriculture states like Nebraska access to quality food can be a problem for some communities, Christensen said.
“When I go up to my see my friends up on the reservation, they’re not getting fed the nutrition they need,” Christensen said. “They will tell you firsthand that they’re not getting the nutrition that they need. And when you go into the inner city, food sovereignty is also a goal.”
Meadowlark Hearth, a 492-acre certified organic farm run by Beth Corymb and her husband in Scottsbluff produces food for the community, including its schools. Corymb’s farm is part of community supported agriculture where community members pay to receive fresh produce weekly. The farm also produces grass-fed beef, as well as vegetable seed.
“The aim is to try to balance your farm like you would balance your own health,” says Corymb.
Ficke’s meat company markets beef locally and is part of the RegeNErate Nebraska network, a group of farmers and ranchers that practice regenerative farm techniques and sell directly to consumers.
He also hosts tours of his farm year-round, encouraging visitors to see and hear what a regenerative farm is like.
One dubious visitor from the United Kingdom didn’t believe Ficke’s farm practices yielded the results he proclaimed, so he showed up to see. Healthy soil has a scent called petrichor, the same pleasant and earthy smell that accompanies rain. Ficke says he told the visitor to smell the soil. Once he sniffed a shovelful, the visitor became an instant convert.
“I’m a big believer in, ‘We make the soil better, all of society improves,’” Ficke said.